Plants, platypuses, poisons and, oh yes, paperbacks

Why do I feel this sudden urge to plant a poison garden? Oh, nothing on the scale of the one at Britain’s Alnswick Castle (provocative gates pictured at left), but at least a leafy border full of foxglove and monkshood, maybe with a little jimsonweed and poison ivy thrown into the mix.

I blame it on my paperback giveaway for The Poisoner’s Handbook, actually. so many of the entries concerned lethal vegetation. “Plants that people do not think are poisonous, but actually ARE, such as Hemlock, Foxglove, Hellebore, Nightshade and Yew,” wrote one commenter.  And here’s another: “Foxglove, clematis, bryony, bloodwort… the list is endless, it seems. Would be interesting to find out how these were used historically as medicines and poisons.”

And a personal favorite: “I’ve been reading a lot of gardening catalogs lately, and notice plants marked “poisonous, keep seeds away from children and pets.” Could someone (hypothetically of course) grow castor beans, serve them up to granny, and feign innocence when she gets poisoned?”   The poison ricin, in case you wondered, is extracted from castor beans, and is most famous for its use in the 1978 umbrella assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.

I’ve always liked the subject of plant poisons because it raises a point that I think the often forget. We humans didn’t invent toxic substances. The natural world was always fully armed and from the beginning, our planet was fully loaded and capable of generating lethal events without our help – think, as one comment pointed out, about limnic eruptions and the suffocating potential of carbon dioxide. Or consider venoms – from snakes, from bees, and even from those rather adorable looking Australian platypuses. In fact, the comments about platypuses produced a link to a Grant Jacobs post on the subject on his terrific blog, Code for Life.

But there were also ideas concerning less “natural” hazards.  The industrial compounds included  hydrofluoric acid (a remarkably poisonous compound used in many pharmaceutical preparations) and the suspected carcinogen acrylamide found notably in french fries and potato chips. And one astute comment cited a post that I’ve been meaning to write for literally months, concerning over-the-counter the drug, acetaminophen, and its troubling and poisonous side-effects.

In fact, the ideas were so good that I wish I had a larger stockpile of paperbacks to give away. I do hope that if you’re intrigued by the ideas raised here that you’ll take a moment to go back to the comment list on the original giveway post – it’s a great way to get an overview of the kinds of questions that some very smart people are asking about poisons.

For those who entered the giveaway contest, if you see your idea specifically cited or quoted here – congratulations! I’ll be contacting you directly for instructions on sending your autographed copy of the brand-new paperback. And thanks to everyone who entered – just a terrifically smart list of ideas. I wish I could do them all.

And about that poison garden? My husband, I’m afraid, has vetoed the idea. For some reason.

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6 Responses to Plants, platypuses, poisons and, oh yes, paperbacks

  1. Laura says:

    Your mention of a toxic garden is serendipitous. I am practicing indexing on a book that’s been waiting for me to read: “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities” by Amy Stewart. She mostly covers toxic, intoxicating and hallucinogenic plants, but includes invasive, stinky and physically dangerous plants. An easy but informative read.

  2. Kate says:

    I read that one and liked it quite a bit. I need to find an accessible book about suspected ergot poisoning through the ages – any suggestions?

  3. Is that RICIN I see up there? Yay!

    Kate…the only thing that comes to my mind is a novel from Stephanie Barron (she of the Jane Austen/detective series) in which ergot is used to trigger miscarriage. I don’t know if she lists sources in her books or not, but it might be a place to look. Also, I think this was used in the circle of the Duchess of Devonshire of 18th century fame.

    And while I would never suggest Wikipedia as an incontrovertible source, I’ve always found that the links provided to actual references are useful. There are a few in the reference list that might be of interest to you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot

  4. Here’s a site about ergot that I like to use for teaching intro botany:
    http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/bot135/lect12.htm
    Scroll down to the history part. I should be possible to follow up on some of his sources for this page.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much, Eve. Ergot is high on my list and I’m very glad to have this resource.

  6. Pablo Kopperud says:

    Gardening is an endless job, with many pitfalls. It doesn’t take much to completely ruin a beautiful garden by planting the wrong plants, or not planting them correctly. We have plenty of articles to make sure that everything goes as planned. From planting to weeding and poisons to plant food. Never worry that you will get it wrong when you have a resource like directweb helping you.,,

    Adieu
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